Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Politics

A storm like Debby likely would not scrub Republican National Convention

TAMPA — Looks like it would take more than Tropical Storm Debby to stop the Republican National Convention.

If the meandering Debby had soaked the bay area on Aug. 26, the day before the RNC, instead of on June 24, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he believes the convention would still be a go.

"Ingress and egress into downtown is still available," Buckhorn said Monday. "Bayshore (Boulevard) is really the only problem child, but most of the delegates wouldn't be coming in on Bayshore."

In the event of harsh weather, the decision about whether to proceed with, postpone or cancel the convention would be up to the Republican Party and its convention organizers.

Convention spokesman James Davis didn't entertain the hypothetical question Monday, saying only that the RNC's staff works closely with federal, state and local officials to plan for every contingency, including bad weather, and to make sure everyone is safe.

But another convention insider, Tampa Bay Host Committee president Ken Jones, said he believes there would be "no way this thing would have been canceled."

"Not a chance, in my humble opinion," said Jones, who has lived in the bay area since 1976 and seen storms from Hurricane Elena to the no-name storm of 1993. "I don't think (the RNC) would have been much affected at all. We've got great people in place who know how to deal with these situations."

The city activated its emergency operations center for Debby, but not at the scale it would for a full-blown hurricane, Buckhorn said.

There were no evacuations, and the mayor knew of no flooding at either the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the site of the convention, or the Tampa Convention Center, where 15,000 journalists will have their work space.

The convention center is in Zone A, which is evacuated in Category 1 hurricanes with winds of 74 to 95 mph. The Tampa Bay Times Forum and two major convention hotels, the Tampa Marriott Waterside and the Embassy Suites, are in Zone B, which is evacuated in Category 2 hurricanes with winds of 96 to 110 mph.

Last year, a National Hurricane Center scientist estimated the chance of a hurricane hitting the Tampa Bay area in late August at probably less than 1 percent.

However remote, it is still a possibility local and state officials are thinking about. Last month, state emergency management officials did a mock hurricane drill on how they would respond if a hurricane hit the bay area during the convention.

"We're ready," Buckhorn said.

Police Chief Jane Castor said a tropical storm like Debby might not help the Tampa Bay area charm its first-time visitors, but she did not assume that it would make it easier or harder to police the convention.

"On some elements, it would be a little more difficult, (like) with the traffic issues; on some, it would keep some people inside so it may make it a little bit easier," she said. "But we have prepared for any situation that could occur, and that's including weather."

Florida's hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. In August, most hurricanes tend to move east to west, and the conventional wisdom is that Tampa Bay, on Florida's west coast, is somewhat shielded.

The last time a major hurricane hit Tampa Bay was 1921. The last time it was hit by any hurricane was 1946, when a Category 1 storm came up through the bay.

But as Debby and other storms have shown, it doesn't take a direct hit for the bay area to feel the effects.

In 1985, Hurricane Elena, a Category 3 storm, stalled off Cedar Key in early September. It was 100 miles northwest of Tampa, but the storm surge still flooded Bayshore Boulevard and damaged thousands of homes in Pinellas County.

In October 1968, when Hurricane Gladys went ashore near Homosassa, Clearwater Beach saw wind gusts of up to 90 mph.

In 1950, Hurricane Easy brought 120 mph winds to the area as it scraped along the edge of Florida before making a loop between Tampa and Cedar Key.

Overall, Buckhorn said he thought Tampa came through Debby well, with mostly localized flooding.

The city has done $617,000 in landscaping on Bayshore for the RNC, but spokeswoman Ali Glisson said all of the new plants have a moderate level of salt tolerance and should be okay despite Bayshore being flooded.

"Downtown is open," Buckhorn said. "Businesses are open. Traffic is going to be a challenge, but traffic would be a challenge in August anyway."

Richard Danielson can be reached at d[email protected] or (813) 226-3403.

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